London councils are planning to provide residents with free Wi-Fi to create the most connected city in Europe, V3 has learnt, with Camden Council leading the tendering process.
It's expected the deal will be finalised in a matter of weeks. Sixteen of the 33 London boroughs are currently involved in a tendering process for the deal, with a number of major telecom providers bidding for the project.
"Camden is leading a pan-London initiative to accelerate Wi-Fi coverage across the capital," Camden council cabinet member for finance, Councillor Theo Blackwell told V3 in a statement.
"We are currently having contract discussions with the aim of increasing access, supporting local businesses and generating funds to support our digital economy."
"Working with other councils, rather than just on our own, has generated significant commercial interest, accelerated next generation services into London and increased competition between potential suppliers."
Other councils involved are some of London's busiest, including Newham and Havering, as its IT director, Geoff Connell, explained to V3.
"The boroughs are jointly tendering for Wi-Fi. What we've done is invite telcos to piggy back on our infrastructure to provide free Wi-Fi to residents. A number of telcos have bid," he said.
Connell declined to name the telecoms providers involved in the tendering process, but said those bidding were "all the major telcos".
"It's the same sort of model as that which is running in the underground. [The Wi-Fi provider] will generate income through advertising."
Connell said the telecom providers would also benefit from the new deal as increased use of Wi-Fi by London residents would free up 3G network capacity.
"In my opinion some telcos don't fully understand all the opportunities of this deal. As 3G gets more contended, 'not spots' arise. These are especially bad in busy areas," said Connell.
The busy boroughs of London also tend to have more lamp posts, and it is these – and other public street structures – that will power the free Wi-Fi service, said Connell.
Connell added that the free Wi-Fi service may just be provided to residents for half an hour a day or included as part of an existing mobile phone or broadband deal. The services may not be entirely free in all cases, with some authorities possibly offering Wi-Fi at a concessionary rate.
Meanwhile, Connell, as the chair of local government working group London Connects, has been talking to central government about the boroughs' shared Wi-Fi strategy.
"The Government Procurement Service (GPS) had been very supportive of us, supporting joined-up IT across London, both in providing shared Wi-Fi connections and shared data centre services."
Connell said the Wi-Fi project is part of a London council strategy to procure IT as one buyer. Not only does this save on cost and effort, but it also leads to improved IT standards, he said.
"One of the reasons the smart cities agenda is so hard is that it's tough to know who should set the standards. But if we jointly specify the requirements, there's one way of getting the standards implemented."
The model will also be similar to the free Wi-Fi service O2 provides to the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, which was installed a year ago in preparation for the Olympics.
Neither O2 or Virgin would comment on whether they were involved in the current tendering process.
Virgin Media Business director of wireless Kevin Baughan said Virgin is involved in discussions with a number of UK cities about providing free W-Fi to residents.
"We're still in procurement stages so we are not avilable to discuss. The important part is the city does not have to shed any of the costs," said Baughan.
"In the coming years, the business model for Virgin Media Business is about building enough capacity into networks with small cell networks."
Rosalie Marshall is the special projects editor and chief reporter at V3. Previously she was a reporter for IT Week and channel editor for online television site LocalGov.tv. Rosalie covers government IT, business applications, IT skills, open source technology and social networks.